The Women Returns

The Women Returns

Ellen DuBois: Feminism and The Women

The Women—Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 Broadway play and 1939 hit movie—is like a glorious, screwball, cinematic female vampire: It will not die. In fact, it is playing well right now in a big-budget 2008 update written and directed by Diane English, who is best known as the creator, writer, and producer of the highly successful sitcom Murphy Brown.

All of The Women’s more than one hundred parts are written for women, and its wide variety of female roles and fabulous dialogue is irresistible to actresses. The 1939 version starred the luminous Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, Joan Crawford as the scheming Crystal Allen, and also included a cast of Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Maine, and—as the only African American in the film—Butterfly McQueen.

The 2008 version stars Meg Ryan in the lead role of Mary Haines, along with Candace Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Annette Benning, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Carrie Fisher, Bette Midler, Debi Mazur, and Jada Pinkett Smith, who does double duty in the film as its only African American and lesbian.

Clare Boothe Luce wrote The Women as if she knew what she was talking about, and she did. As “good” as wife Mary is, schemer Crystal has the author’s attention. Luce herself was a true cross-over, going from being an independent working woman of unclear origins to wife of one of the most powerful men of the mid-twentieth century. Clare Boothe was divorced and an editor at Vanity Fair when Henry Luce left his wife to marry her. One year later, The Women opened on Broadway and Luce went on to become a two-term Congresswoman, an ambassador to Italy, and an influential figure in the rising Republican right. It’s a safe bet that most moviegoers under 30 won’t have the slightest clue who Clare Boothe Luce is any more than they will know that her husband Henry Luce was the wealthy publisher of the mid-century’s most influential weeklies, Time and Life. Most of my students have never even heard of Time and Life. Was there really a photo-weekly before People?

I expected to hate the 2008 version, but I did not anticipate its many pleasures. If you know the 1939 original, it is great fun to watch the filmmakers playing with their adaptation. In the 1939 black-and-white original, the famous fashion show was in color; in the 2008 color version, the fashions are starkly black and white. Some great lines repeated in their pristine integrity play fabulously well seventy years after they were written. (A character remarks of Crystal: “She’s got those eyes that run up and down a man like a searchlight.”) The updating of the plot is just as fascinating. The last third of the 1939 version takes place in a Reno divorce resort, where Mary has gone to spend her necessary six weeks to get her quickie divorce. Reno has undergone a makeover and is now a yoga resort (I imagine somewhere north of San Francisco), but still the place where the same sort of women go for the same purposes of marking time as their marriages dissolve. The 1939 figure of the countess, the comic character who continues to believe in the power of love despite her numerous divorces, is reprised by Bette Midler who plays a cynical Hollywood agent sneering as she preaches “l’amour, l’amour!”

Above all, The Women remains irresistible because the question it poses—Can a woman be married and modern at the same time? Can she, in other words, have it all?—begs to be asked and answered endlessly. The danger is that the new version—like the old one—revolves around a promiscuous, scheming woman who knows how to work the interest of a roving, middle-aged husband when his sweet but naive wife does not. The contest is still put forward in unexamined class terms—the poaching woman is “from the wrong side of the tracks” and the wronged wife lives in idyllic luxury in a too large house in the country. Surrounded by her friends, Mary is misled to abandon her husband to the scheming Crystal, only to relent to his infidelities and reconcile in the end. The clever trick of The Women is to make men as irrelevant, as they are central, to the film’s drama. Men are, at once, easy to manipulate through their predictable sexual desires and, at the same time, the prize over which women struggle. Flesh and blood men are absent from the movie; in it, they function solely as women’s fantasies, enchanting and infuriating them in equal parts.

The absence of men points to the lesson at the core of The Women. A smart, modern woman is in charge and that means fighting for her marriage and not overreacting to her husband’s dalliances. The 1939 version is quite explicit that such selflessness is the very mark of emancipation. Mary’s mother reminds her daughter that women aren’t chattels any longer but men’s equals. A modern woman has too much perspective, too much restraint, too much strategic acuity for such a short sighted action.

Keeping a marriage going in the face of the weaknesses in men’s nature requires all the political skills that a modern woman can muster. The movie presents this combination of romance and realism as Mary’s modernness, and as a correction of the excesses of feminism’s first wave. As the movie’s lone unmarried career gal says, of her spinster self: “Nature abhors an old maid with frozen assets.”

What has changed since 1939? To begin with, the route back to marriage takes a long detour through personal discovery. Mary must “find herself” before she dare return to her marriage. Finding herself means a career of her own which isn’t so much about money (which is curiously missing from anyone’s consideration) but about self discovery. Mary decides to open her own fashion business. (Why is fashion the only business area that modern women on the screen ever consider?) In the blink of an eye, she is the bustling head of a thirty-woman production and design staff. Announce a career and the profits will come. Repairing the marriage is still the ostensible goal, but in 2008 it seems to have receded into the background. Mary will apparently get her husband back—if she has the time. The memorable final scene in 1939 has Mary running open-armed to her husband just on the other side of the camera. In 2008, she’s on a cell phone, squeezing a dinner with him into her crowded agenda. Selfishness, not selflessness, is what makes a modern marriage work.

Yet despite its superficial hard-headedness when contrasted to the 1939 version, The Women of 2008 is at its core less clear-eyed. In 1939, the women of The Women knew that choices must be made, and an undercurrent of the movie refuses to celebrate the compromises that Mary learns to make. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Meg Ryan is much less compelling in the lead role but the lesson offered in the 2008 film—to go find yourself—is put forward as a successful solution to the modern woman’s dilemma not as a necessary concession to an irresolvable contradiction. There are no misgivings. Can we have it all? While the original movie says no, insisting that a smart modern woman needs to understand this; in 2008, the answer is an unqualified yes.

In the emotional void that this attenuated and slightly hysterical devotion to marriage opens up, there comes an entirely new and distinctive element in the 2008 version—one that is straight from the just preceding Hollywood feminist movie, Sex and the City. Ryan, Benning, Pinkett Smith, and Messing look to the world like Charlotte, Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda strutting the streets of New York.

In 1939, women are the real evildoers in Mary’s life, especially the devious Sylvia. The movie looks at the claims of sisterhood with a withering eye. By contrast, in 2008, the saving power of friendships among women is the ultimate romance. Annette Benning’s Sylvia undergoes as much of a transformation as does Ryan’s Mary, as she regrets and atones for her disloyalty to her friend. Indeed, Sylvia becomes the most compelling character of the movie, no longer a foil for the heroine and comedic relief. In 1939, Mary’s mother warns her not to count on her girlfriends. In 2008, Mary’s mother has nothing to offer except the mistakes of her own devotion to marriage.

In 2008, girlfriends are ultimately all a girl has. As the 2008 film draws to a close, Mary weeps from her emotional loss. “Stephen?” someone asks. “No,” says Mary, “Sylvia.”

Ellen Carol DuBois is Professor of History at UCLA. Her work focus is on women’s history. She is the coauthor of a comprehensive history of women in the U.S., Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Film still are from the 1939 film’s opening credits.

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